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Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

Sad lad, or mad lad?

By Michèle Roberts

As an art form, confessional writing has had a dodgy history over the past hundred years. Foucault pointed out how it may originate in the power relationship of the Catholic confessional, the penitent revealing sins to the superior priest, the intermediary with God, and then receiving absolution and an appropriate penance. What use was confessing, he argued, if you always addressed a superior Being who defined grades of sin in advance of your testimony? How could you operate as a free subject if the ground of your being was always defined by others?

Feminists in the 1970s subverted this masochistic narrative, telling life-stories to one another as equals in groups sworn to confidentiality, not condemning but using these mutually witnessed stories as levers for social change. How very different to the blogging babble of contemporary life, with its breakdown of old barriers between private and public.

A fresh twist arrives with the use of confessionalism in the thriller, when the criminal rehearses the speech to be made to the police, the psychiatrist, the jury. John Banville, for example, brilliantly melded the literary novel with the roman policier when he played, in The Book of Evidence, with the idea of confession as fantasy, a form of showing off. His narrator is unreliable, probably a psychopath, but totally engaging, brilliantly provocative, challenging us to work out whether we believe his version or prefer to sit back and feel dazzled in the headlights of his prose.

In Engleby, Sebastian Faulks inherits this rich tradition and develops it to its own ends. His eponymous hero keeps a diary. We do not, initially, know why. Michael Engleby, known to his peers as Mike, has come up to an ancient university (we presume Cambridge) and decides to record his life. Perhaps he wishes to make a fresh start, and to mark it through writing. The reader is required to suspend disbelief, because quickly Engleby's diary becomes the vehicle for a rambling first-person narration.

Engleby, reading English literature in his first year, scans his classics, their methods of storytelling. Having skimmed Richardson's Pamela, he understands from the frantically scribbling heroine, able to record her melodramatic life second by second in notelets, that the diary-letter form is used by writers to create an illusion of immediacy and reality. So he coaxes us to go along with his version of college life in the early 1970s, with the awkwardnesses of being a shy young man unable to get a girlfriend, with his account of his solipsistic drinker's existence.

His views of women as mysterious Other beings, alternately idealised and cosily patronised, seem apt for the times. Weren't most blokes from single-sex schools in those days like that: unable to see women as human like themselves; clumsy and misogynistic without knowing any better? Only when the object of Mike's fantasies, the undergraduate Jennifer, disappears and is presumably murdered, does the reader start to smell lots of rats, to doubt Mike's commonsensical account of her place in his student life of drama societies, political meetings, pub crawls and lonely drives around local bypasses.

Mike shovels out little bits of autobiography. No wonder he is isolated and socially inept. His parents have not loved him properly, indeed packed him off to boarding school. Mike's account of his prolonged torture at the hands of cruel older boys makes anguishing reading. The novel suggests, rather like Alice Miller's studies of childhood trauma, that an abused child given no help by compassionate adults may turn into an abuser, or worse.

Mike keeps it all under wraps. He manages to get into journalism, into the swim of things. Faulks has lots of fun with Mike's blokeishly right-wing views of the early 1980s: trouncing left-wing politics, feminism, trades unions. It's precisely through this cheery account of "normal" professional life that the novel suggests how things have gone badly wrong.

Michèle Roberts's memoir 'Paper Houses' is published by Virago next month

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